North Americans’ knowledge of music from Iceland can be summed up in four words: BjÃ¶rk and Sigur RÃ³s. But Leif Vollebekk wants you to know those stars are not all Iceland has to offer. “The music there is ridiculously fantastic,” he said of his “favourite place in the world.”
Vollebekk, of Norwegian and French-Canadian descent, decided to go to Iceland on an exchange while he was working on a degree in philosophy at Ottawa University. “I got to see amazing shows, and learned Icelandic,” he said. He came back with five songs that eventually became part of his debut album, Inland.
Vollebekk has been dabbling in music since the age of five. He learned to play violin at age six, moving on to guitar and piano at age seven, and he plays all three and the harmonica on his debut. Despite a musical upbringing, he never intended to become a musician. “I tried to fight it,” he said. “I got a degree in something unrelated, and that actually made it clearer for me.”
He said his favourite instrument depends on the song he’s playing. But it quickly becomes obvious that he has a soft-spot for the harmonica, the “shiny little silver thing” as he called it. “There’s so much to learn in the tiny little instrument.”
Before escaping to Iceland, Vollebekk changed his style every few months, and would end up hating most of the songs he had written. But upon his return, he left Ottawa for Montreal with a collection of songs he wanted to record. These songs became Inland, which he also produced. “I emailed a few newspapers, the ones who got back to me reviewed it, I played a few shows… it was pretty nitty-gritty,” he said.
He’s not sure if the songs written in Iceland are distinguishable from the ones written when he got back, but the difference is clear to him. “I associate some of my songs with Iceland,” he said, explaining how each one reminded him of a particular memory from his trip. He describes Inland as an album about specific people, but with a “wide countryside kind of feel.”
This fall, Vollebekk played Pop Montreal for the second year in a row. He also played the Ottawa Bluesfest this summer, and recently returned from a tour of the East Coast. He has also played a few shows at the Blacksheep Inn, a bar in Wakefield, Quebec, 20 minutes outside of Ottawa. He says it’s a “really sweet place to be appreciated” because of the crowd that comes out to the show. Since Wakefield is so removed from big cities like Ottawa and Gatineau, “the people who are there actually want to hear the music.”
Toronto-based Nevado Records will re-release Inland on November 24, almost a year after it first came out. Vollebekk is also recording a new album, that he describes as “hotter-sounding.”
He has recently played a few shows with the band Lily, Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts. But prior to that, he played the shows on his own. He plays his different instruments and loops the sounds for background music, then picks up his guitar and plays that over the loop. “I keep myself busy when I’m on my own,” he explained.
When it comes to lyrical content, the painstaking way he sings the truth makes listening to his songs almost uncomfortable, as if the listener is reading his diary or eavesdropping on an important conversation. But Vollebekk doesn’t find baring his soul hard. In fact, when it comes to being honest, he says “it would be more difficult not to be. Sometimes it’s difficult when you think about it. But I try not to.”
Leif Vollebekk will be performing with Miles Benjamin Anthony and These United States at Il Motore wednesday, Nov. 18 at 8 p.m.